This site uses cookies to provide you with more responsive and personalized service and to collect certain information about your use of the site.  You can change your cookie settings through your browser.  If you continue without changing your settings, you agree to our use of cookies.  See our Privacy Policy for more information.

eXperience Jesus

Casting a New Kind of Youth Conference


eXperiencing Jesus (XJ) aims to strengthen students’ faith in Christ—and teach them ‘to fish for people the way Jesus did’ through hands-on training

by Anneliese Rider

XJ is a new weeklong conference for youth pastors and their high school and middle school students


What began in the 1980s as the SEMP (Students Equipped to Minister to Peers) Conference is re-launching this summer as the XJ (eXperience Jesus) Conference. Coming to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago July 8 to 13, this apologetics and evangelism training event gives teens who are passionate about Christ the tools and hands-on experience for introducing Jesus to others.

“It started with the dreaming, you know, ‘What does this generation need that is different from past generations?’” says Josh Edwards, assistant professor of Applied Theology and Church Ministries for Moody Bible Institute since July 2023 and leadership development catalyst for Sonlife Ministries.

Like XJ, the original SEMP conference was an intensive weeklong training in evangelism and apologetics that ministered to teens from 1989 to 2015. Sonlife has been working with other organizations on similar trainings since then, but for some time Moody and Sonlife have both felt that something was missing.

Reaching today’s teens

In 2021, Josh and other leaders from both organizations started doing some serious brainstorming about how they could re-launch SEMP. Everyone thought it was a great idea, but they also knew that a new version of SEMP would look different.

“One of the training components is in evangelism, and then another component is in apologetics,” Josh says. “And those two things, while great and important, are sometimes a little misunderstood by students today.”

But apologetics and evangelism are still the main drive of the conference, so as they set the ball in motion and started planning, the team discussed how they could teach to reach today’s teens.

Same tools, different names

Before long, they came up with an answer: a simple redefinition of terms, including a new name for the conference—XJ (eXperience Jesus).

Josh explains that anchor training (apologetics) comes first, as students dig deep into the truth of the gospel.

“We want to approach it and say, ‘Your faith is something that is worth believing in and that is true. And so you can believe in it,’” Josh says. “That's the anchor. That's anchoring you to your faith and to the gospel and to Jesus and to a relationship with God.”

The second step in the process is net training (evangelism), where students learn what it looks like to fish for people the way Jesus did.

“Then let's do a different training and say, ‘Okay, now how do we cast our nets? How do we fish for people the way Jesus called His disciples to fish for people?’” Josh says, talking about how one of the most influential evangelism tools is helping someone experience who Jesus really is.

“You know, like, ‘How does this actually transform my life? How does it change my day to day?’ and ‘How does it impact my relationships with friends?’”

Sharing Jesus in the city

Because of this emphasis on action, XJ Conference—scheduled for July 8–13, 2024 on Moody’s Chicago campus—won’t just be a week of sitting around and listening to speakers.

Everything in the conference will be framed around the goal of helping teens experience Jesus in all different ways: alone, with others, in the classroom, and on the streets.

Students will participate in anchor and net training all morning. After lunch every day, they’ll get to go out into the city of Chicago to practice what they learned. Each night, students and leaders will celebrate what God has done and share what they saw and experienced that day.

Unlike a “regular” student ministries conference, the target audience for XJ isn’t just “everyone.” Students who want to come to XJ are the ones who are prepared to roll up their sleeves and start sharing the gospel.

“I tell leaders, ‘Most of your students probably aren’t ready for this, but who are the students who are going to change the culture of your youth ministry?’” Josh says. “Bring those students who are looking for more out of this relationship with Jesus and are looking to serve.”

Watching the gospel change lives

Tom Maxwell, associate pastor at Lakeside Baptist Church in Salem, Virginia, has been transporting his students to the SEMP conference since 2003.

One of the key activities that students at past conferences have done is write an evangelistic letter to an unbelieving friend back home. A young woman in Tom’s group one year was dating an atheist. During the conference she was convicted and wrote a letter to her boyfriend explaining the gospel. When she returned home, she broke up with him.

“He later told the story that he and another atheist friend read the letter, made fun of it and her, and he threw it on his dresser,” Tom says. A few months later, he learned his parents were getting a divorce—shocked and hurting, he dug out the letter and re-read it. “After reading the letter, he gave his life to Christ.”

Now, that young man is a youth pastor at a church plant in Oklahoma.

Matt Slippy, long-time youth pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has also been bringing students to SEMP for years. In his experience, the conference has been formative not only for the students but also for the leaders.

“At SEMP, one of the challenging aspects as a leader was to be engaged along with our students,” Matt says. “I had to write letters to my lost friends and neighbors just like our students. It was just as scary for me as for them. I had to pray and trust just like our students. The principles for knowing, loving, following Jesus are not just for our teens but for us as leaders as well.”


Moody Bible Institute 
820 N. LaSalle Blvd. Chicago, IL 60610 
(800) DL-MOODY

Moody Bible Institute

Moody exists to proclaim the gospel and equip people to be biblically grounded, practically trained, and to engage the world through gospel-centered living. In short, we prepare people for their purpose and calling!